Skip to main content

Cross-posted at Real Economics.

Hope is a powerful force. So what I want to bring you for Thanksgiving is hope. Hope that we CAN have cheap, abundant energy. Hope that we CAN have cheap, abundant food – for everyone.  We CAN have cheap, abundant clean water – for everyone.  Hope that we CAN have cheap, abundant medical care – for everyone. Hope that we CAN provide every living soul on our unique blue planet a decent standard of living worthy of the dignity of being human. And hope that we CAN do all these things while addressing and reversing the widespread environmental damage that the past two centuries of industrialization and mechanization have caused. Hope that we CAN solve global warming.

We are at a history-shattering point of transition, where resources and energy will not be scarce, and will never again be scarce. In the past half century, humanity has developed technological capabilities which are now growing exponentially. The best known example is Moore’s Law: that the number of transistors we can put on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. In a cell phone, one person has at his or her fingertips more computing power than NASA used to put astronauts on the moon forty-four years ago. The only things holding us back are old thinking in the Malthusian mold that denies the possibility of technological solutions; and old ideologies of political economy that prevent us from reforming the financial and monetary systems for the common good and to pay for what we need to do.

Economics today is hopelessly confused by a myriad of definitions for “capital”, “wealth” and even “money”. An economy is simply how a society organizes itself to procure, produce, and distribute the material, non-material, cultural, and spiritual goods and services required to sustain and reproduce human life at ever higher levels of happiness, security, and well-being. All else are really superfluities. Therefore, the major concern of economics should be the nurturing and deployment of the human mentation required to find and transform the natural resources required, and managing the scientific and industrial structures required.

In other words, the development of science and technology.

The progress of human technology can roughly be summarized as moving ever further down 1) a spectrum of energy density and 2) molecular and atomic scale. From the rapidly diffused light and heat of burning wood twigs, we have progressed to concentrate fire in boilers, then in internal combustion engines, and are now mastering the techniques of directing and manipulating single molecules, atoms, and even photons. We can now perform surgery on genes, and arrange individual atoms. These technologies are all breathtakingly recent in the context of known human history.

The implications are enormous. Almost every economics textbook I have seen – and I have acquired quite a few and looked at many, many others for just this reason – begins with some definition or other involving the allocation of scarce resources. People who have suffered through an Econ 101 course know that scarcity is central to mainstream economic thinking. In the best selling textbook on macroeconomics, economist H. Gregory Mankiw writes near the bottom of the first page:

The management of society’s resources is important because resources are scarce. Scarcity means that society has limited resources and therefore cannot produce all the goods and services wish to have. Just as each member of a household cannot get everything he or she wants, each individual in a society cannot attain the highest standard of living to which he or she might aspire.

I will put this as simply as possible: Mankiw’s and all other’s arguments that resources are scarce is a smokescreen that prevents us from seeing how rich oligarchs manipulated national economies. (Mankiw was George W. Bush’s chief economist, and earlier this year wrote a piece entitled “Defending the One Percent” – honest, not joking, that’s Mankiw’s title).

The typical environmentalist belief that the planet’s resources are finite falls right into this trap. What we consider as resources is defined by our ability to access and process them – in other words, our technology. As Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler argue in their book, February 2012 book, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think

When seen through the lens of technology, few resources are truly scarce; they’re mainly inaccessible. Yet the threat of scarcity dominates our worldview.

Thus, the most important economic activity human beings undertake is scientific research. But I am here to tell you that no economics textbook I have seen has ever discussed the overriding importance of scientific and technological development and deployment. They all, therefore, lack a sound foundation for actually assisting the human species in our task of surviving and thriving. Aluminum, for example, is ridiculously abundant. It is, after oxygen and silicon, the third most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, accounting for 8.3 percent of the world’s weight. Yet, until relatively recently in human history, the use of aluminum by humans was far more scarce than the use of gold or silver. It was not until 1886 that the Hall-Heroult process was developed, using electricity to extract aluminum from its ore, bauxite, and aluminum became cheap and plentiful.  Diamandis and Kotler argue that

technology is a resource liberating mechanism. It can make the once scarce the now abundant.

But many progressives and liberals object that our world is overpopulated, and the planet simply cannot support a high standard of living for nine billion people. We are already using thirty percent more natural resources than the planet can sustain. Diamandis and Kotler explain example after example of new technologies that will solve this problem. Such as nano-engineered filters for making drinking water from the most heavily polluted sources, to new materials that will allow us to build photovoltaics without semiconductors, reducing the cost of solar energy by not one, but several orders of magnitude.

Just as important – and as hopeful – as these new technologies, is the fact, demonstrated over and over and over again, that as a society becomes more prosperous, more economically secure, and healthier, the birth rate drops dramatically. In fact, the birth rate collapses. We have seen this happen in Britain and the USA in the mid-1800s, in Japan in the late 1800s, in South Korea in the 1960s, in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and India more recently.  In a number of advanced industrial countries, such as Italy and Japan, the birth rate is now actually insufficient, and the populations of those countries are shrinking. Diamandis and Kotler write:

John Oldfield, managing director of the WASH Advocacy Initiative, which is dedicated to solving global water challenges, explains it this way: "The best way to control population is through increasing child survival, educating girls, and making knowledge about and availability of birth control ubiquitous. By far the most important of these is increasing child survival. In communities where childhood death rates hover near one-third, most parents opt to significantly overshoot their desired family size. They will have replacement births, insurance births, lottery births — and the population soars. It’s counterintuitive, but eradicating smallpox and vaccine-preventable disease and stopping diarrheal diseases and malaria are the best family planning programs yet devised. More disease, especially affecting the poor, will raise infant and child mortality which, in turn, will raise the birth rate. With fewer childhood deaths, you get lower fertility rates — it’s really that straightforward."

What about water shortages? Only 2.7 percent of the water on the planet is non-salty and usable for human consumption. Right now, one billion people have no clean drinking water, and 2.6 billion people lack access to basic sanitation. Dean Kamen has developed a water distiller that recovers 98 percent of the energy it uses and can produce 250 gallons of sterile water per day. The power source is a Stirling engine that really can burn almost anything, such as rice husks. Others have invented machines that process human wastes and turn them into electric power.

Energy? In sub-Saharan Africa, 70 percent of people live with no access to electricity – yet one square kilometer of land soaks up from the sun the energy equivalent of 1.5 million barrels of oil. Deploy enough photovoltaics, and Africa has a huge surplus of energy it can export to Europe. University of Michigan physicist Stephen Rand discovered a way of creating magnetic fields one hundred million times stronger than what the known, accepted “laws” of physics had previously predicted was possible. The result of this research will hopefully be a way of making photovoltaics without semiconductors, reducing the cost of solar energy by not one, but several orders of magnitude.

Global climate change? Diamandis and Kotler describe the SunShot Initiative by the U.S. Department of Energy

….now funded the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, a $122 million multi-institution project being led by Caltech, Berkeley, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. JCAP's goal is to develop light absorbers, catalysts, molecular linkers, and separation membranes-all the necessary components for faux photosynthesis. "We're designing an artificial photo-synthetic process," says Dr. Harry Atwater, director of the Caltech Center for Sustainable Energy Research and one of the project's lead scientists. "By 'artificial,' I mean there’s no living or organic component in the whole system. We're basically turning sunlight, water, and CO, into storable, transportable fuels — we call 'solar fuels — to address the other two-thirds of our energy consumption needs that normal photovoltaics miss." Not only will these solar fuels be able to power our cars and heat our buildings, Atwater believes that he can increase the efficiency of photo-synthesis tenfold, perhaps a hundredfold-meaning solar fuels could completely replace fossil fuels. "We're approaching a critical tipping point," he says. "It is very likely that, in thirty years, people will be saying to each other, 'Goodness gracious, why did we ever set fire to hydrocarbons to create heat and energy?’ “

And what about the carbon we have already dumped into the atmosphere? Dr. David Keith at the University of Calgary has developed technology that actually removes CO2 from the air. Can the technology be scaled up to actually make a difference and undo the damage already done? With enough cheap energy, it probably can.

Technology is developing so fast, it is hard to keep up. I receive a newsletter on developments in photonics, and here’s a very small sample of recent news:
November 23, 2013: Superconducting Detector Measures Single Photons

A new superconducting detector array that can measure the energy of individual photons is seen as a likely successor to CCDs [charge-coupled devices] and other semiconductor-based detectors for the visible and near-infrared regions, which are starting to hit performance limits.

"What we have made is essentially a hyperspectral video camera with no intrinsic noise," said Ben Mazin, assistant professor of physics at UC Santa Barbara, of the array that he and his team developed. "On a pixel-per-pixel basis, it's a quantum leap from semiconductor detectors; it's as big a leap going from film to semiconductors as it is going from semiconductors to these superconductors.

November 14, 2013: Seeing A Photon Without Absorbing It
All current methods of detecting light share a common property: absorption and thus destruction of a photon. It has been a long-standing dream to be able to watch individual photons fly by without absorbing them. A team of scientists in the Quantum Dynamics Division of Prof. Gerhard Rempe at the Max-Planck-Institute of Quantum Optics has now for the first time realized a device which leaves the photon untouched upon detection.

In the experiment, the incoming photon is reflected off an optical resonator containing a single atom prepared in a superposition state. The reflection changes the superposition phase which is then measured to trace the photon. The new method opens up the perspective to dramatically increase the detection efficiency of single light quanta and has important implications for all experiments where photons are used to encode and communicate quantum information. The key elements in the experiment are a single rubidium atom and an optical cavity.

November 13, 2013: Researchers rewrite entire genome, add healthy twist
Scientists from Yale and Harvard have recoded the entire genome of an organism and improved a bacterium's ability to resist viruses, a dramatic demonstration of the potential of rewriting an organism's genetic code.
October 23, 2013: Study Finds Natural Compound Can Be Used For 3-D Printing Of Medical Implants
Researchers from North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Laser Zentrum Hannover have discovered that a naturally-occurring compound can be incorporated into three-dimensional (3-D) printing processes to create medical implants out of non-toxic polymers. The compound is riboflavin, which is better known as vitamin B2....

The researchers in this study focused on a 3-D printing technique called two-photon polymerization, because this technique can be used to create small objects with detailed features – such as scaffolds for tissue engineering, microneedles or other implantable drug-delivery devices.

Two-photon polymerization is a 3-D printing technique for making small-scale solid structures from many types of photoreactive liquid precursors. The liquid precursors contain chemicals that react to light, turning the liquid into a solid polymer. By exposing the liquid precursor to targeted amounts of light, the technique allows users to “print” 3-D objects.

This last reminds me of one of the most exciting developments Kotler and Diamandis discuss: the work of tissue-engineer Anthony Atala at Wake Forest University Medical Center, who led a team that modified a desktop laser printer to print with each pass one layer of stem-cell based specific tissue cells and were able to “print” a mini-kidney in a few hours. They don’t write how long the mini-kidney survived in the lab, but did mention that the organ was secreting a urine-like substance.

We are at a history-shattering point of transition, where resources and energy will not be scarce, and will never again be scarce. A truly golden age of economic prosperity and bounty is closer than most of us realize, but we are quite literally killing ourselves by clinging to ideologies that were hammered out when famine was the norm, cholera swept away millions, and the average human being could expect to live only somewhere between 30 and 40 years. . We will soon be at a point that we can give every person on the planet a decent standard of living. Not the wasteful sol of the contemporary USA, but enough that no person, anywhere, for any reason, need experience hunger or cold or deprivation But, we have rich pricks who have poured billions of dollars into promoting and propagating the idea that poor people deserve the hardships and indignities they suffer.

It already is seen as a “structural problem” that our industrial systems are now so productive and efficient, that they cannot be a source of good, steady, well-paid jobs for tens or millions of people. So we’re supposed to now accept that because of this marvelous advance in human know-how and capability, tens of millions of people who can no longer find a well-paying factory job have to settle for the marginal wages of Wal-Mart or McDonalds? I refer people to thereisnospoon on DailyKos a week ago, The glorious, dystopian future envisioned by our libertarian masters, attacking Tyler Cowen who wrote to welcome a possible future in which 15% of the population “succeeds” and the rest must learn to get by on what they are provided by whatever welfare system society devises.

We are at the point where everything we need can be produced by only 20 to 50% of the population, depending on what country and its stage of industrial / technological development. So, we need to develop an ideology in which “structural unemployment” is not accepted as an excuse for hundreds of millions — billions, really — of people being left in poverty. We need, in fact, an ideology which does not accept poverty under any excuse. We have the means at hand to eliminate poverty and privation. Will we allow some the “freedom to believe” in ideologies that prevent us from doing so? I ask in retort: what right has anyone to “trade” hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars when we have such a bright future to build, if only we summon the will to finance it?  There have been a few already who have warned about a future in which the rich are able to use new technologies to genetically perfect themselves and their offspring, while the vast majority of the human race is subjugated by new ideologies that will consequently be developed to justify the rule by a small class of the wealthy  bio-engineered to be “genetically superior.”

Which brings me to my criticisms of Diamandis and Kotler. I see three problems with their book. First, they are completely wedded to neo-liberal market solutions, and appear to have no desire to challenge, let alone change, the status quo in the industrialized west which is increasingly under the boot of, as Pope Francis recently said, the new tyranny of capitalism. Any economic system must be run to benefit the general welfare. This was well understood at the time of the American Revolution, but it is now lost knowledge. Did you know that the words “capitalism”, “capitalist” and “capitalistic” do not appear anywhere in The Federalist Papers, let alone the U.S. Constitution? (There is a website where you can search the text of these documents, and I’ve done the searches).

Rather than challenging the rise of the global corporatist state and its inverted totalitarianism of manufactured consent, Diamandis and Kotler promote the charity work done by what they call the technophilanthropists, the info-tech billionaires like Bill Gates, who are funding much of the work of deploying these new technologies in underdeveloped countries, and who are also approaching the charity work they do from a largely neo-liberal market perspective.

Second, Diamandis and Kotler simply do not comprehend how large and ugly are the problems of greed, economic rent, regulatory capture, and the grasping rich. For every technophilanthropist trying to do good, there is probably more than one Jamie Dimon or David / Charles Koch doing no good (i.e., evil, according to the definition by St. Augustine). Diamandis and Kotler simply are not attuned to the fact that a new oligarchy has arisen that is destroying democracy and representative government. As the president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, William Dudley, recently shocked Wall Street in a speech, there is an

important problem evident within some large financial institutions—the apparent lack of respect for law, regulation and the public trust.  There is evidence of deep-seated cultural and ethical failures at many large financial institutions.
Finally, Diamandis and Kotler do not understand or simply did not discuss the problem, of who controls the creation and allocation of money and credit. The control of money and credit by a small clique of oligarchs, centered in Wall Street and the City of London, but including other centers such as the futures markets in Chicago, is the major obstacle to making forward progress against these existential problem. Simply put, our financial and monetary systems must be reorganized and reformed to serve the general welfare, instead of private gain.

An article in Scientific American two years ago projected a total cost of moving the world’s economies entirely off of fossil fuels at $100 trillion. There is enough solar energy hitting one square kilometer of desert in Africa to supply all the electricity needed - in all of Europe as well as Africa.

All we need to do is build the new industrial economies to harvest and harness this energy. The only things holding are back are old thinking in the Malthusian mold that denies the possibility of technological solutions; and the problem of paying for what we need to do. And to pay for what we need to do, we simply need to stop the speculators and usurers of Wall Street, the City of London, and the futures pits of Chicago, from misusing some $5 trillion in financing each and every day.

So, what future do you want to build? One in which we spend $100 trillion over the next decade or two to give everybody on the planet freedom from starvation, poverty, and illness? Or one in which financial elites are allowed to play games with $5 trillion every day? Do you want to build a future for which our children, and their children, will thank us, or curse us?

Originally posted to NBBooks on Thu Nov 28, 2013 at 08:38 PM PST.

Also republished by Money and Public Purpose.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  Please Repost This in the Middle of a Work Week (13+ / 0-)

    when maximum eyes will see it. It would be hard to imagine a smaller readership than this moment other than maybe 3AM New Year's Day.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Thu Nov 28, 2013 at 09:12:51 PM PST

    •  Alternately, why not leave it up today and see (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Words In Action

      what happens, and announce in the diary that it's going to be taken down at x pm and republished on a given date? I don't think there's anything in the rules against it, and that would give word of mouth some time to set up for the republish. There may be more people here than you think.

      At least half the future I've been expecting hasn't gotten here yet. Sigh.... (Yes, there's gender bias in my name; no, I wasn't thinking about it when I signed up. My apologies.)

      by serendipityisabitch on Fri Nov 29, 2013 at 05:45:56 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  That's probably part of the plan (0+ / 0-)

      Anyone who can get through this diary after a second helping of tryptophan probably already understands the underlying premise.

  •  Agreed. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Andrew F Cockburn

    I'd like to see some discussion on this, and there's a lot here to discuss.

    "The 'Middle' is a crowded place - that is where the effective power is - the extreme right and left might annoy governments, but the middle terrifies them." Johnny Linehan

    by northsylvania on Fri Nov 29, 2013 at 04:26:39 AM PST

  •  While I wait for the repost, here are some (2+ / 0-)


    I will provisionally buy the argument that the earth can comfortably support 7 billion people, or any finite number of people for that matter. But Malthus was correct: the earth eventually cannot support any number of people who increase at a constant rate. Right now it looks like the corner has been turned in many countries, but until it has everywhere I remain worried.

    Biologists often talk about the rate-limiting factor in complex processes. For example, my house plants might be limited by the amount of light they are getting. Fertilizer won't help much in that situation, only more light. If I install a grow-light, although they will grow better, then they will be limited by something else- say nitrogen. Removing the rate-limiting factor sometimes makes a dramatic difference, but sometimes it makes little. It depends on where the next rate-limiting factor kicks in.

  •  Great piece but the one thing that you and almost (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    all progressives take as gospel is the neo-liberal belief that the Govt is a simple currency user like a household.  Doing something about economic inequality is hugely important for fairness and political power but inequality is not important when it comes to funding R&D and scientific investment.  As a nation, we can always afford to buy whatever we want.  Thats what having a sovereign fiat currency is all about.  The US dollar comes from the US Govt, The People, not from China or from the wealthy.  Inflation is the only concern with regard to spending money.

    If it is your position that we can't afford to do the things you write about unless we take the money from the wealthy, then you wrong and fighting the battle exactly on the ground that the neo-liberals want.  Its a losing political battle now and it has been for decades.

    MMT = Reality

    "The Earth is my country and Science my religion" Christiaan Huygens. Please join our Kos group "Money and Public Purpose". The gold standard ended on August 15, 1971, its time we start acting like it.

    by Auburn Parks on Fri Nov 29, 2013 at 05:50:09 AM PST

    •  Auburn Parks is right (0+ / 0-)

      This is a wonderful diary that needs far wider dissemination.

      It also needs the infusion of Modern Money Theory concepts. We do need to even out economic inequality, but as a separate issue we could, if those in Washington had the will, begin more intensive work on green energy, infrastructure improvement, climate change mitigation, and all the other pressing needs of our nation.

      Underlying work on those is greater support of science and education.

      We could begin these efforts right now, our leaders permitting, since we "have" the money without waiting for economic equality. As Auburn has briefly outlined, the government can issue money for any projects approved by Congress. Money is really an authorization, a statement of an agreement between government and the provider of services to the government (or between private buyer and seller). The government cannot run out of money any more than I can run out of keystrokes on this emachines keyboard. If money were a physical thing it would probably be limited, but since it's what I termed in my book an informational statement ( it requires just the government's decision to issue it.

      What inspires me the most about this diary is its optimistic prevision of a future that's both wondrous and achievable. (Please see my sig line.)


      For the first time in human history, we possess both the means for destroying all life on Earth or realizing a paradise on the planet--Michio Kaku.

      by psyched on Fri Nov 29, 2013 at 09:42:31 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  oligarchs future-one that continues to enrich them (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Words In Action, blueoasis

    that is what they are driving for

    the environmentalist David W. Orr points out that we face a moral problem in dealing with the environment and people

    our culture of consumerism, and politics of money, have avoided the moral problem

    technology alone cannot solve it - "progress"  has been the mantra since the Enlightenment and it needs to be thrown out and replaced with an understanding of the earth and its people

  •  One facet of this examination is that of (4+ / 0-)

    progress traps, the uncanny ability of humans to "solve" one problem but in the process creating a much more complex, insidious and destructive one. Agriculture and food science have done this in many cases, and of course the energy industry. Oil is a progress trap in the sense that we have developed such an enormous dependency upon it, including the infrastructure of hugely dependent, entrenched oligarchy that would rather see mass extinctions across the surface of the planet than let go of their current business model for uncertain futures with new technologies and resources for, of and from which they do not entirely know how to create, seize and control income and wealth.

    Otherwise, I understand and agree with much of what you are saying: we could solve many of our biggest problems and relatively quickly if we simply had an economy designed to do that rather than one that serves to protect, entertain and enrich the oligarchs. Which, I believe, is itself a progress trap. Like most such traps, they are traps because we become so bound to and dependent upon them that we will threaten ourselves with mass privation and sometimes even regional die-backs for lack of being able to change.

    We could save a tremendous amount of money by defunding weapons and war, for example. No doubt enough to solve some the hugest vexing problems we have. Yet the possibility of doing that is nil.

    I have heard that eliminating world hunger comes with a price tag of about $100 billion. Whether that is a one time or annual fee, we could solve it with a small fraction of our defense and intelligence budgets. But we won't.

    And look at how we have wasted twenty years not addressing Climate Change...

    The possibilities are both endless and non-existent at the same time. They are the latter because of the complacency, complicity, and collaboration of the vast middle in protecting and participating in the current establishment as the best of all possible worlds. Even though it most definitely is not.

    Thanks for raising this issue.

    Trust, but verify. - Reagan
    Vote, but Occupy. - commonmass

    When the rich have tripled their share of the income and wealth yet again, Republicans will still blame the poor and 3rd Way Democrats will still negotiate.

    by Words In Action on Fri Nov 29, 2013 at 07:26:10 AM PST

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site